Just as the memory of the last bruising battle for control of the Senate begins to fade, political handicappers are casting their gaze to the 2014 campaign when Republicans once again will try to overcome the Democratic majority. Just as the Republicans began the 2012 campaign cycle in strong shape to reclaim the Senate, the GOP has a clear edge heading into the next face off.
While some of the most intriguing political speculation today centers on whether actress Ashley Judd will run as a Democrat to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, political analysts are focusing again on the Democrats' substantial vulnerabilities in retaining control of the Senate in two years.
The Democrats emerged from the 2012 election with a 55 to 45 seat advantage over the Republicans, thanks in part to President Obama's solid re-election victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney and to "stupid" gaffes made by GOP Senate contenders. Rather than losing ground, as many political analysts had predicted, the Democrats were able to pick up a couple of seats. Looking ahead to the next big battle, Democrats will once again have to scramble to retain control of the Senate as a counterweight to the Republican majority in the House. And they will have to do that without the benefit of a strong Democratic president at the top of the ticket.
The Democrats' predicament stems from a combination of retirements — including those of veteran Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and changing political fortunes that leaves them on political high alert in a dozen or more states. In fact, the seven most imperiled Senate seats in the country are all held by Democrats, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato's latest Crystal Ball analysis.
"As we unveil our first ratings of the new Senate cycle, the key question 20 months before the election is this: What seats are in the greatest danger of flipping from one party to the other," wrote Sabato and his associates, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley. For sure, a number of Republicans are showing vulnerabilities, and an entry by the popular Ashley Judd into Bluegrass politics could present McConnell with a major political headache. But for now, here are the seven most vulnerable Senate seats:
Alaska — Democratic Sen. Mark Begich defeated the late GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, who was renowned for bringing home pork for his state, and Begich has tried to carry on that tradition as much as possible. However, Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks potentially faces hundreds of lost jobs if the Air Force moves a fighter wing — and Begich could take a hit for that. Polling indicates that Republican Gov. Sean Parnell (R) would be Begich's strongest opponent, but Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is the likeliest opponent. The seat is clearly a toss-up.
Arkansas — Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, the son of highly popular former Senator David Pryor, is a formidable force, even in a state where the once-dominant state-level Democratic Party appears to be crumbling. However, the Republicans will have some real fire power in the coming election. Lt. Gov. Mark Darr (R) appears likely to run and has ruled out a gubernatorial bid, but some Republicans are holding out hope that Rep. Tom Cotton will be the Republican challenger here instead. Cotton — mentioned as a potential presidential candidate even before being elected to the House last year — is an Army veteran and Harvard-educated lawyer.
Iowa — Democrat Tom Harkin's decision to retire after five terms in the Senate provides a golden opportunity for Republicans. Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is the likeliest Democratic nominee. On the Republican side, polling indicates that arch conservative Rep. Steve King leads the early primary field, but Rep. Tom Latham, a more mainstream conservative who is close to House Speaker John Boehner, does better in general election matchups. While there are other Republican possibilities, it seems likely that one of these two would be the frontrunner for the nomination.
Louisiana — Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has an ample campaign war chest with $2.5 million, but potential challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) is not far behind, with $2 million in the bank. That far outpaces other possible Landrieu opponents. Former Rep. Jeff Landry, a Tea Partier, could conceivably cause Republicans trouble in a primary. Landrieu has never won more than 52 percent of the vote in her three previous Senate victories. A hypothetical Republican majority in 2015 would have to include this seat.
North Carolina — Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was swept into office with the aid of presidential turnout in 2008. This time around, there's no presidential race above her on the ballot. Granted, she outperformed Obama in 2008, but turnout will certainly be down this time around, and Hagan won't be facing off against a vulnerable incumbent (then-Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole). Among the possible Republican candidates are North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Reps. Renee Ellmers, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx and George Holding. Although recent polls show Hagan leading these potential foes, her middling approval rating and the midterm dynamics make this race a toss-up.
South Dakota — With former two-term Republican Gov. Mike Rounds (R) likely to run for this seat, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson will have his hands full if he decides to seek another term. In some ways, Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, may be vulnerable. The 66-year-old senator suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in 2006 and may not be up to a competitive campaign. Moreover, South Dakota has been strongly Republican at the presidential level and increasingly so for other federal elections. But like its neighbor to the north, South Dakota has a record of mixing and matching the partisan affiliations of its congressional delegation in Washington.
West Virginia — Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller's announcement that he won't seek re-election opens up a seat in a state that in recent times has been strongly Republican at the presidential level while remaining relatively Democratic at the state level. Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of a popular former governor, appears to be strongest possible GOP candidate, with early polling showing her leading all potential Democratic opponents. But the moderate-to-conservative Capito conceivably face a challenge on her right flank in the GOP primary.
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